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Shabbat Message — On Forgiveness and Repentance: Achieving a Sabbath of Peace

 

There is a felicitous concept in Jewish Law (halakhah) called b’meizid and b’shogeg. In short, b’meizid means commiting a wrong with intent, such as eating a cheeseburger with the knowledge that it is a cheeseburger. B’shogeg means committing a wrong without intent, such as eating a cheeseburger that you thought was a veggie-burger. Logically it follows that the consequence for committing a mistake b’meizid is much harsher than the consquence for committing a mistake b’shogeg. Thus it also follows that achieving forgiveness, the state in which we are able to move past our mistakes, is much more attainable for mistakes committed b’shogeg as opposed to b’meizid.

 

In fact, there may be times when acts committed b’meizid are completely unforgivable. Cheating on a spouse, stealing from an employer, or viciously belittling a friend. Causing intentional harm (i.e. b’meizid) is vastly different in nature from slipping up without intent (i.e. b’shogeg). The former means we are willful, the latter means we are not perfect. We tend to be more forgiving when we fail trying to be our best as opposed to failing when we give in to our worst.

 

Can people ever turn away from negative acts they commit b’meizid? In this week’s Parashah, Pharaoh says he is turning away from his brutal oppression of the Israelites: “I stand guilty this time. The LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong” (Exodus 9:27). But like many of those accused of acting b’meizid, Pharaoh’s words ring hollow. How do we know he really means it? Someone like him cannot be trustworthy, right? Our skepticism of Pharaoh’s motive means forgiveness, which requires another person or a community to trust the offender’s apology, is very difficult to achieve. But without the hope of forgiveness, what is left for the willful aggressor? The answer is teshuvah, repentance.

 

As Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook teaches us, “it is the nature of the human soul to go along the correct path, and if you stray from that path (i.e. fall into sin) as long as your soul is not destroyed completely, the sense of correct-ness will energize your heart…to return and fix your distortions, until you feel that your sin has been erased” (Orot Hat’shuvah, Chapter 1). Teshuvah is an inward process of returning to the correct path, a process that may or may not be capable of being publicly witnessed or identified. Thus only Pharaoh knows if he was doing teshuvah, but even if he did, we can’t ever forgive him.

 

Yet Shabbat comes to remind us that no matter the strife, no matter what willfull, b’meizid actions we or our loved ones engage in to each other’s detriment, the ultimate goal, even if remains ever elusive, is to achieve ultimate peace; peace in which inner-repentance and public-forgiveness are intertwined. As a midrashdescribing the report of a former handmaid in home of the great rabbinic master Rabbi Elimelech says: “During the week the maids would often quarrel with one another, as is common. But, week after week, on Friday when the Sabbath was about to arrive, the spirit in the kitchen was like the spirit on the eve of the Day of Atonement. Everybody would be overcome with an urge to ask forgiveness of each other. we were all seized by a feeling of affection and inner peace” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 31).

 

May we, like the household of Rabbi Elimelech, merit to achieve that Shabbat moment of peace…when we are good and ready for it.

 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Y. Saks